Three Challenges That Come With Transitioning from Graphic to UX Design, and Tips to Overcome Them
The new economy means that most people will change careers at least once in their lifetimes. In some cases these changes are drastic (quitting your executive position to be a yoga teacher – anyone?), and in others, they are natural evolutions or lateral moves. For many graphic designers, the move to User Experience design (UX) is one that often happens organically.
The decline of the print industry and growing focus on designing for digital means that graphic designers are increasingly considering what it means to design for screens. In tandem with that, the heightened strategic importance of design for many products and services means that designers must consider their work beyond the visual aspect.
All of that said, career transitions are not a walk in the park, and although graphic design and UX have many overlapping or transferrable skills, designers will face challenges along the course of this transition.
Expanding Your Skillset
Having graphic design knowledge and experience is certainly an asset to the aspiring UX designer. While it’s a great base to start from, there are additional skills that are important to acquire through learning and practice. The biggest shift is in designing for use – creating products and systems that people use to complete a task, rather than communication pieces that people view and absorb information from. This means understanding principles of usability, being able to conduct design research, facilitate workshops, and rapidly prototype and test ideas.
This skills gap can feel overwhelming – so what’s a graphic designer to do? As UX is a relatively young discipline, there are few formal degree programs, and many practitioners are self-taught through a combination of reading, experience and shorter educational programs. The good news is that there are lots of ways to level up your UX knowledge:
- Devour as much UX material as possible! Read everything you can, and listen to podcasts. The Rosenfeld Media books are a great place to start, as well as podcasts such as the UX podcast, the Dollars to Donuts design research podcast, and of course the Creative Cloud blog!
- Join UX communities, such as the IxDA, Michael Wong’s Designership, or the Interaction Design Foundation. These communities regularly host webinars, workshops and meet ups that can support learning.
- Consider online courses, evening classes or boot camps for a more structured approach. There are some great beginner resources to get started with, or you can read more about the options available and how UX education is evolving.
Remember that theoretical learning is a great start, and that what you learn needs to be applied through your work, side projects or personal projects.
Feeling Pigeon-Holed as a ‘Pixel Pusher’
For many graphic designers looking to make the transition to UX, this can be the most frustrating barrier. Great graphic design skills and visual polish and be a distraction for some employers, and you may feel pigeon-holed as someone who ‘makes things pretty.’ The advantages of visual design skills are a double-edged sword; many students I’ve worked with have felt this pain, where they end up being seen as more suited to UI or graphic design work, even though they are longing to do more UX focused work.
It’s important to not get discouraged if this happens. Overcoming this challenge is all about knowing how to represent yourself and your work, and how to use those visual design skills to your advantage! Some approaches to this challenge include:
- Make sure to represent work in the appropriate way for a UX designer in your online portfolio. This includes showing and emphasizing process, (e.g. including sketches and wireframes or early iterations) and articulating how design decisions are connected to research, insights and an understanding of user needs.
- Choose the right level of visual polish for the work you show in a portfolio or in an interview. You may want to tread carefully and initially de-emphasize the branding and visual design elements of the work. This is a judgement call you need to make in each situation, but if you are frequently finding yourself in the visual design box when it’s not where you want to be, think about changing up the polish and fidelity of work you show.
- During interviews, emphasize the importance of the design process and iteration. For graphic design, often what matters is a stunning end result. For UX design, your approach to solving problems and how you think about them is often what a potential employer is trying to assess. It’s crucial you demonstrate that you know how to learn about users, and how to apply those insights to the design of an experience.
Presenting yourself and being seen as a UX designer will take some time and practice as you are learning a new mindset. It’s ok for this to take time, just stick with it!
Getting Your Foot in the Door
As with any career transition, getting started is often the hardest part. For many designers, landing the first job or opportunity to flex your UX muscles takes a lot of time and perseverance.
- One mistake that people sometimes make is fixating on getting ‘the perfect job’. Chances are, your first UX job might not tick every single box you are after, and that’s ok. Focus on getting your foot in the door somewhere that you can be relentlessly useful as you are learning – diving in is the best way to develop your career.
- Startups can be an environment where as a designer you can take on UX and learn by doing. However, beware that this is a challenging environment, sometimes without much mentorship, so it’s not for everyone.
- Another option that’s especially relevant to graphic designers making a transition to UX is to look for split UX/UI roles. While there is much debate about design ‘unicorns,’ a role that requires your graphic design chops can be a great starting point.
- Internships and junior positions can be in great demand, but are of course an ideal starting point. Look for known programs that take on designers, in tandem with building your network and offering your services to smaller companies.
- Doing your own side and personal projects in the meantime, or freelancing, can be a great way to practice skills and build your portfolio.
Getting your foot in the door is definitely a challenging phase of any career transition. This challenge is all about staying positive and persevering!
Genius is One Percent Inspiration, Ninety-Nine Percent Perspiration
As a graphic designer hoping to transition to UX, you have a great starting point. Being aware of some common pitfalls and strategies to overcome them will help you on your journey. As Thoman Edison said, it’s “ninety-nine percent perspiration.”